Living a Private Life in the Public Eye

It’s almost a universal response these days. I tell someone we have nine children and they respond with some variation of “Wow! That’s like ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ only with one more. I don’t know how you do it.” Let’s just set the record straight from the get-go: My life is nothing like Jon’s or Kate’s.

First of all, I don’t have a reality TV show. As much of my family as I share in this column and on my blog, I don’t live my life publicly. Families are places for little people and big people to grow. In the heart of a family, we all make mistakes, seek and find forgiveness, and learn to be more like God. It’s very difficult to do all of that with a camera trained on you.

I watched Jon and Kate recently. Since I was constantly hearing about them and being compared to them, I figured I should know a bit about them. So I caught a TLC marathon. The last episode I watched was a show where they decided to take all the children skiing in Utah. My husband flies to Utah a couple of times a month for work. I figured I’d pick up a few pointers should we ever decide to fly out there and turn one of his business trips into a vacation.

Kate explained how important the trip was because she wanted to be sure that her children get to do all the things other children do, despite the fact that she has eight children eight-years-old and under and six of them are all four years old. I assure you that not all four-year-olds go skiing. I’ve had seven four-year-olds now and none of them have been skiing. It’s all I can do to zip my four-year-olds into snowsuits and send them out to play in the yard before it’s time to come in again and go potty. Ski vacations at plush resorts in Utah are not critical to the growth and development of a child. Furthermore, I’ve learned that it’s not a good idea to set myself or the children up to fail. Skiing together can wait until there’s a good chance we’ll all enjoy it. It was a two episode show. The first episode was the trip out there and the second episode was the actual vacation. By the end of the first episode, I was so frustrated that I never watched to see what happened on the slopes, though I have a good idea.

No wonder the people who compare our family to that one always look so pitying. Those children whined the entire time. It was as if someone was begging them to whine, teaching them to whine. Oh, wait, someone was. Their mother whined, very vocally, about all of it — the trip, the kids (and how many of them there were), the plane, and her husband. Whine, whine, whine, until she was huddled up in a ball, nearly hysterical because the flight was being diverted.

I have flown with children. It can be very stressful (particularly when one doesn’t have the benefit of a private plane, as Kate did). I live with nine children. I don’t have multiples. Her challenges are different from mine. She’s never tried to help with college applications while nursing a newborn or taught a teenager to drive while fighting morning sickness. Still, no doubt, her life is more stressful than mine. What makes me sad is that Jon and Kate have crept into the culture to the degree that the general population thinks that they are an accurate representation of life in a big family. They are not.

We don’t whine. I don’t whine and I don’t allow my children to whine. There’s no way you could pay me to announce out loud with wailing and melodrama,”There are too many of us!” as Kate did. There are never too many of us. There are exactly how many of us as God intended for our benefit. I see my children as gifts. And before I even knew those gifts, I saw my husband as a gift. I have tired days and frustrating days, but those 10 people are always gifts in my life. And they know it.

I wish Kate knew what it does to a child to see his mother sighing and complaining about what a trouble he is by his very existence or the circumstance of his birth. I wish Kate knew that husbands are happier when they are respected and appreciated. What makes me sad about Jon and Kate is that America has the impression that large families are exasperating burdens. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I know many, many real life large families. The days of whiny chaos are the exception and not the rule. Most mothers of large families are masters of organization, yes, but even more, they are careful students of patience and eager grabbers of grace. They pray for the children they have and, often, they beg God for more children. And, at the end of the day, when they sit with their husbands on the couch, they move a little closer. Together, they reflect on successes and sorrows. Together, they evaluate problems and encourage progress. Together, with mutual respect and genuine affection, they gratefully embrace an abundant life.

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  • Michelle

    Thank you for your article. I watched their show last night, and had to turn it off mid-way through. It has been about a year since I’ve seen an episode, and the lack of love I saw between Jon and Kate made me very sad. The show definitely rubbed me the wrong way. My husband and I have one child & one newly on the way. I see how easy it can be to slip down the path of whinning, complaining, and taking each other for granted. This is a reminder of how vigilant we must be to treat everyone as the gift that they are in our lives and to make sure that they know the gift that they are! I need to pray more for families, especially theirs & mine!

    Thank you again for your article!

  • DonnaMaria

    Nowadays, you see that kind of whining in families with two children. It is very sad. Thank you, Elizabeth, for being salt and light in a self-centered world. You truly are an inspiration.

  • momof11

    I may whine occasionally about the messy house, lack of money for doing everything I’d like, etc…but I don’t recall ever whining that I have too many children.

  • Joe DeVet

    One of the most un-real things around these days is “reality” TV. When did you ever see one of these shows that had a thing to do with reality? Even when it touched the heart, as the home makeover show often did, it finally set your teeth on edge with its unreal rah-rah, contrived angst about meeting meaningless deadlines, and overwrought bathos.

    As for big families, after years I finally found the right response to the question, “Why do you have so many (ultimately 8) kids?” (The question was asked in many ways, from genuine admiration to disbelief, to pity, to hostility.) For them all, my response of “We didn’t want to limit our joy!” sufficed to satisfy the curiosity.

  • MichelleGA

    Excellent response, Joe DeVet! That’s exactly how it is…we don’t want to limit our joy, either.

    I’ve seen the show a few times over this past year, and I thought the poor mom and dad seemed so unhappy.

  • drea916

    There is a show that I watched a couple of times- I *think* it was on TLC. There were a dozen kids. They were more normal- the couple had them one at a time, they live a simpler life, etc, etc.

    I really liked the program because sometimes I worry about getting married and having kids. Even though I’m a strong believer about being open to life, I worry that I won’t have what it takes to be a good mom. When I watched that mom of 12 (or 15?) I know that I can do it and that I won’t, and don’t have to, be perfect. Now I just need a good Catholic man to be my partner in crime- I mean- virtue.

  • It would not surprise me. There is hardly anything so dangerous to spiritual development as huge sums of unearned money.

  • Claire

    You hit the nail on the head, Arkanabar. Jon himself in a recent episode said that initially they started doing occasional shows so they could document their children’s childhood, but it quickly grew into a business. It seems to me that the decline of their marriage coincided with the increased income and spending on vacations, a huge house, etc.

    I only have one child, but I often feel overwhelmed between the responsibilities of motherhood, my fulltime job, caring for my house, my mother-in-law’s recent death, etc. But when I whine about being overwhelmed, I never complain about my son. Usually it’s my job that I complain about. (It looks like God is providing a way for me to reduce my hours in the very near future, which will hopefully reduce the whining as well.) After going through infertility, Kate should know better than to whine about having too many kids.

    I’m so glad that someone has finally pointed out that the upscale vacations this family goes on are not essential to providing the kids with a normal childhood. I commend Kate for making a point of taking the kids on outings that singletons go on. But many of the outings they go on are above and beyond average.